Recreation leaves a larger footprint
Play takes an increasing toll on the backcountry

A makeshift bike plate from a recent race lies discarded along a trail in Horse Gulch recently. Local land managers say increased recreational use of public lands is beginning to take a toll./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

Heavy impacts are hitting the backcountry and the usual sources – mining and logging – are not the culprits. Instead, the damage is coming in the forms of fire rings, expanding roads and trails, and empty energy bar wrappers and the like, all inflicted by growing recreational use. While the situation is not dire locally in the San Juan Mountains, land managers and conservationists are feeling the increasing burden of recreation.

The public lands surrounding Durango have two distinctions. First, they are vast, comprising more than 40 percent of La Plata County. Second, they are relatively isolated from major urban centers. In recent history, these two factors have resulted in relatively pristine National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands.
However, local land managers say that this trend is shifting. As a result of increased numbers of locals recreating along with jumps in tourist traffic, the local back yard is no longer as plush as it used to be.

Resource extraction

Richard Speegle, recreation program leader with the Columbine Ranger District, commented, “In the old days, the conflicts were between logging and the environment and mining and the environment. Nowadays, people are talking about problems with recreation and the environment.”

This metaphor of tapping a resource is an accurate one, according to Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance. And as with traditional development, recreation appears to be tapping the resource out, he said.

“Historically, there’s been a tendency to exploit resources to the maximum extent possible,” he said. “It seems like we’re on that path again with recreation. We don’t seem to want to think about what the long-term consequences will be of exploiting this resource.”

Ann Bond, spokeswoman for the San Juan Public Lands Center, argued that more and more people in the backcountry are exhausting the recreation resource. “Part of it has to do with an increase in population near public lands,” she said. ”Another part of it is that we have a healthy tourist economy and a greater influx of visitors.”

Bond noted that users ranging from bird watchers to jeepers often forget that they have impacts when they venture into the forest. “Every single one of us has an impact,” she said. “There is no such thing as passive recreation. Even if you’re just a hiker, you have significant impacts on the habitat.”

Managing wild places

Rose Chilcoat, program director with Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a locally based, national conservation group, agreed that numbers are the culprit. “Anytime you have overuse of an area, you’re going to be degrading it,” she said. “And sometimes you have to control the number of people who have that experience. At some point, the agencies are going to have to actively manage wilderness, which seems like an oxymoron.”

There are a number of areas within the San Juan National Forest that could see increased management in the near future, according to Bond. In particular, she referenced Chicago Basin, where proximity to several 14,000-foot peaks has led to impacts to the designated wilderness area. As a result, users can expect heightened regulation in the coming year. “During the summer, we joke that there are probably more people in Chicago Basin than there are on the main street of Durango,” she said. “How’s that for getting away from it all?”

Bond also pointed to Engineer Mountain and the Haflin Creek Trail as two local areas where growing recreation numbers have had negative effects.

Getting the motors in line

Speegle added that managing motorized use in the vicinity of Silverton has been one of the biggest challenges for the Forest Service. “We have a tremendous amount of motorized use in the Alpine Loop area,” Speegle said. “Four or five years ago, the majority of that use was with jeeps. Now, we’ve seen a shift and the majority of use is on ATVs, and we’re having difficulty keeping that use on designated roads.”

Pearson argued that motorized use is most problematic because it allows users to penetrate deeper and deeper into the backcountry. “It doesn’t seem like the influx of hikers and backpackers extends that deeply into the backcountry,” he said. “Motorized vehicles conquer the barrier of distance.”

Speegle said that a growth in downhill mountain biking has also been problematic for local land managers.

“There are a lot of pirate trails being made for downhill mountain biking all over the forest,” he said. “The trails are straight down and real erosion problems. We’re trying to figure out how you build a sustainable downhill mountain biking trail, but we’re coming up empty.”

Speegle pointed to the Durango Mountain Resort development as indication that the problem could get significantly worse in north La Plata County. “DMR is going to have 1,600 new homes, and we’ll have another town that’ll be larger than Silverton,” he said. “That will put year-round pressure on the forest up there.”

Recognizing an impact

As impacts grow, land mangers are hamstrung by a lack of enforcement funding. As a result, the responsibility goes back on the user, and land managers and conservationists are asking backcountry users to recognize they cause impacts and to try to minimize them.

“Recreationists don’t always believe that they have an impact and people don’t want to compromise their fun for environmental resource protection,” Pearson said. “It’s hard to imagine that just walking on a trail could be an impact. But enough people walking on a trail at the right time of year could have serious consequences.”

By way of solution, Ronni Egan, Great Old Broads’ executive director, suggested, “It doesn’t mean people can’t recreate, it just means people may not be able to be so selfish in their expectations of public lands.”

Egan’s counterpart Chilcoat added, “People’s desire to do what they want to needs to be weighed against the realities of the future. If everyone continues to contribute to the degradation, there’s not going to be anything left to recreate in.”

An immense landscape

However, there is also agreement that the San Juans are better off than most mountainous areas. Once again, the combination of vastness and remoteness has kept local public lands pristine relative to their Front Range counterparts. Bill Manning, executive director of the local trails advocacy group Trails 2000, commented that so far recreation has just scratched the surface of local public lands.

“We do see a lot of recreation, but I don’t believe that recreation and conservation are currently at odds locally,” he said. “Mother Nature recovers quite nicely, and I think locally the impacts from recreation have been relatively small.”

He added that with just under half of La Plata County being designated as public lands, people have plenty of places to play. “We have this immense public landscape to recreate in,” Manning said. “I don’t get the sense that we’re there or even close.”

However, Pearson said he sees a more immediate threat, pointing to the recent development boom in La Plata County and a rapidly growing local population.

“We’re fortunate in that we’re still a long way from giant population centers,” he concluded. “That has been our saving grace over time. With growing population, that may not be the case in the future.”





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